When police investigators in Morton, Illinois tried to find out what caused a multi vehicle accident that killed an elderly woman in July, they turned to drones for help. Like many police agencies throughout the US, the sheriff’s department in Tazewell County used a drone to take aerial photographs of the scene of the accident to help investigators get an idea of what occurred. According to Chief Deputy Jeff Lower, the drones help the police get a detailed look compared to what they used to get with people taking the measurements from the ground. This means that there is much less time for roads to be closed or traffic to be backed up when accidents occur.
Before drones, police investigators at a crash scene used chalk, roller wheels, and tape measures to record skid marks and take measurements when trying to assess what led to an accident. More recently, investigators turned to laser scanning tools for mapping the scene. However, those measurements can take many hours, during which lanes would have to be shut down or vehicles denied access to. This can cause major traffic particularly on busy roads and also expose crash investigators and emergency responders to the danger of traffic driving past.
Today, many police agencies have turned to drones to handle the job. The drones are operated remotely and take hi-resolution photos from various angles after which are then entered into a computer with special software that creates 3D models of the scene of the accident. Using the models, investigators can piece everything together and figure out what happened.
While there has been opposition from privacy and civil rights advocates against the use of drones by the police, there is no law that limits investigators from using drones to investigate a crash as long as the drones are not used for surveillance on an individual. About 18 states require investigators to get search warrants before using drones for surveillance. However, most of the states have specifically exempted drone use in crash reconstruction.
Emergency response agencies need drones for many things, such as conducting search and rescue operations, fighting wildfires, and more. Over 900 emergency, fire, and police agencies are currently using drones, according to a recent study. About two-thirds of all local and state agencies that use drones are in law enforcement. As technology increases, we can expect this number to rise drastically as more and more agencies use drones are part of their daily tools.